An excerpt from

book cover imageAmerica Moved: Booth Tarkington’s Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869–1928
By Booth Tarkington
Edited by Jeremy Beer.
Front Porch Republic Books, 2015.
Paperback, 284 pages, $32.

Our friend and Front Porch Republic founder Jeremy Beer has just edited and released a new edition of Booth Tarkington’s memoirs, parts of which have not been previously collected. Tarkington (1869–1946), whom we have had occasion to discuss before is one of America’s great forgotten novelists and a proud son of the Midwest. He was the author of, among other works, The Magnificent Ambersons and shares with Faulkner and Updike the distinction of having won the Pulitzer for fiction more than once. More importantly, he represents a specific regionalist sensibility worth retrieving in our centralizing age. We are happy to publish this exclusive excerpt.

There were people at that time who thought the automobile might be developed until some day it would become a vehicle of common use. A friend of mine even thought it would displace horses altogether.

“You’ll live to see the day when there won’t be any horses in thestreet and the horseless carriages are as ordinary as surreys are now,” he said.

But his prediction seemed to be fanciful. The machines were unreliable and the early enthusiasts who owned them led laborious and exasperated lives. They spent hours lying upon their backs in the street, or in the mud or dust of country roads, striving with the inwards of perverse metals above them; they were never sure of arriving anywhere, or even of starting for anywhere. They often found themselves helpless at critical moments, and all moments were critical. They were mired in mud and had to hire horses; they hired horses on gentle hill slopes; they hired horses ignominiously in crowded streets; they bore conspicuous derision and sometimes leaped for their lives from explosions, or from flames that encompassed them without warning.

The strange-shaped horseless grotesques were propelled by the action of steam or electricity or explosive gas; there was conflict and argument over which served best, and there was further argument over what name the things should bear—“horseless carriages,” or the French term “automobiles,” or “cars,” or just “machines.” And, when an attendant mechanic was hired, there was other debate upon a title for him. Should he be called “mechanic,” or “mechanician,” or “driver,” or “chauffeur”? Mark Twain, with the many horsepower of the elephant in mind, suggested “mahout.”

When the gas machines moved they did it with outrageous uproar, and the vibration of them shocked the spines of the hardy experimentalists who rode in them. In 1903, in the early spring, I was stricken with typhoid fever which harried me until the summer; and, to soften the noises that came into the open windows of the sick-room, the street was covered with fine sand to the depth of two or three inches for the distance of half a block. In the daytime no automobile would enter the sanded area; but sometimes, after dark, one that had not wandered into that shrouded street before would come chugging and snorting into the sand and be caught there like a fly in soft glue. Then there would be blasphemous metallic roarings, accompanied by simple human cursings, for half an hour perhaps.

But the new locomotion improved from month to month; engineers in creative frenzy designed and experimented; stranger and stranger new shapes clattered, banged, and spat fire upon our streets; more horses ran away every day; and the upset citizens wrote fiercely to the papers demanding ordinances excluding motor-driven vehicles from the public highways. Nevertheless, the improvements went on, and, in that same year, having added a sea voyage to convalescence, I drove from Brussels to Waterloo and back in a device called—by the attendant Italian mechanic—an “automobilly,” and was only slightly prostrated by the journey.

This automobilly was very high and shaped like an English brake; the engine howled in a ponderous box at the rear, and the front seat was protected by a tremulous leather dashboard from which one missed the whip socket. The driver steered with a bent rod, and the brave passengers mounted to their seats by means of a little stepladder which was afterward stowed away under the rear seat. The large wooden wheels had solid rubber tires, and their passage over an ancient stone-paved road would have been stimulating to the spinal ganglia if the performance by the engine’s two large cylinders had not already attended to that. The return to Brussels was safely accomplished by four in the afternoon; the passengers walked into the hotel unaided; but having reached their rooms retired instantly to bed and did not rise again until noon of the next day.[1]

Thereafter, for a time, we forswore horseless vehicles, let use them who would; they were intended evidently for people with rubber backbones and no fretful imaginations. When you were driving a horse and ran into anything, the impact ofcollision was with the force of a single steed, not thirty or forty; if you ran over a pedestrian, he endured the passing weight of some hundreds of pounds, not of several tons; if you ran over a dog, he got up and went home, terrified but usually not ruined. Moreover, if things went wrong when you were driving a horse, you had somebody to blame; a horse could hear what you said to him and be brought to repentance. You could never reform an automobilly or get any relief by abusing it.

Europe was beginning to use the machines nevertheless, and more of them were seen there than in America; they were improving more rapidly there than in America, too; and in France we found that everybody talked about them excitedly.

“It’s going to be a craze—and more,” an elderly American who lived in Paris predicted one night at dinner. “It’s going to be a craze on this side of the water first and then in America. It will be a craze in Europe first because of the splendid military highways and the improved roads generally. No sane person would attempt to do any touring in such machines on the horrible American roads; but when the craze becomes furious over there it may do a good thing; it may improve the roads so that one can drive about the country with horses in some comfort. Outside of that, I regard the self-moving vehicle as one of the most terrific visitations our old earth will ever endure.

“You’re sure that a craze for it is coming?”

“It’s in the air,” he said. “Just now, to operate one of those outrages is the distinguished thing to do. Every few days one or another of my friends informs me that he has made the great investment. ‘Well, I’m in for it!’ he says, and his eyes glisten with pride and adventurous excitement. ‘I have bought one!’ Then he proceeds to boast of its horsepower and swears that he has already driven it from Versailles to the Louvre in twenty-eight minutes. He has one hand in a bandage, a torn ear, and a bruise over his eye, and he is delighted with these injuries. The women will help make it a craze because of the special costumes the sport requires—the wonderful hats, the veils, the pongee coats, and the gauntlets. And for the vanity of men, already it is a greater distinction to show automobile goggles sticking out of your breast pocket than a ribbon on your lapel. With these symptoms evident, the diagnosis is simple—within a very few years nobody’s life will be safe the moment he steps out of doors.”

“You aren’t serious?”

“Try to cross the Champs Élysées when the crowd is returning from the Grand Prix,” he said. “You will find that little task sufficiently preoccupying now, when all but a few of the vehicles are drawn by horses. Imagine the horse traffic complicated by great numbers of these roaring, darting machines. Of course I’m serious! Les autos are man’s most dangerous invention, and I am not forgetting that his inventions have brought him the blessings of gunpowder and nitroglycerin. So far, the automobilists have contrived principally to get only themselves killed, and usually when they have been racing their dreadful contraptions; but as the craze spreads there will be massacres of innocents on every city boulevard and country highway. The new machine is simply a locomotive; but remember this mortal difference: a locomotive runs only upon the rails provided for it. Send not a few but thousands of locomotives wandering irresponsibly over the face of Europe and America at a hundred kilometres an hour and you will have an idea of what this certainly coming contagion is going to do. And yet all the slaughter and destruction willbe only a part of the curse that is to come upon the world.”

The others at the table were amused by this prophesying, as preposterous as it was gloomy, and one of them asked, “What worse can a craze for horseless transport do than to massacre the innocents?”

“It can make a change in the life of the people,” the prophet said, not relaxing his gravity. “It will do more than mock the speed craze of the bicyclists; it will obliterate the accepted distances that are part of our daily lives. It will alter our daily relations to time, and that is to say it will alter our lives. Perhaps everybody doesn’t comprehend how profoundly we are affected by such a change; but what alters our lives alters our thoughts; what alters our thoughts alters our characters; what alters our characters alters our ideals; and what alters our ideals alters our morals. When the horseless craze becomes universal it is not too much to say that the world will be inhabited by a new kind of people—and again I am serious.”

“What kind of people will they be?”

“To themselves, they will of course represent an advance,” he said. “They will look back upon us with a pitying contempt; but to us, as we are now, I think they would seem almost grotesque; they would appear to be machinery mad and strangely metallic. They will be unbelievably daring; they will be reckless of life—fast, materialistic, and yet incredibly prompt and efficient; therefore they will be richer than we are. Everything will be changed, because when a man accepts a new idea that revolutionizes his daily life, his mind becomes hospitable to every other new revolutionary idea. We are just entering the period when most of what we have regarded as permanently crystalline will become shockingly fluid—that is to say, we are already in the transition period between two epochs. We have seen the one and most of you here to-night will see something of the other. Your point of view will shift with the universal change; and, if you live, you will yourselves become strange inhabitants of the new world. A quarter of a century from to-night you will be taking as an accepted matter of course, and without a shiver, things that are simply unthinkable to you now. I cannot tell you what those things will be. I am only a reasoner and not an inspirational prophet, but I am sure that if you could have a vision of yourselves twenty-five years older you would be startled and incredulous. And in the meantime, within only two or three years, every one of you will have yielded to the horseless craze and be the boastful owner of a metal demon; you will talk nothing but machines, and as you are being removed to the hospital you will babble to the stretcher-bearers of horse-power and kilometres per hour. Restfulness will have entirely disappeared from your lives; the quiet of the world is ending forever.”

The pessimist gave us two or three years to begin our transfiguration into strange inhabitants of the new epoch but for my own part I did not need quite so long. The fair golden sunshine upon the boulevards became more and more shot with the blue vapours; the smell of burnt oil and gas grew tolerable to the nostrils and then actually enticing. Simultaneously, the trains to Paris from the country suburb where I had gone to live appeared to become more and more inconvenient until at last the day came when I perceived that the contagion was irretrievably upon me. Excited by the discovery of my condition, I lost no time but hurried to the office of an automobile agent on the Champs Élysées and asked him to be my friend. He had various kinds of automobiles to sell, on commission; I left it to him to choose which one was best suited to my circumstances and my ambitions.

When most of us who are elderly or middle-aged recall the purchase of our first automobile, in those early days of motoring, we feel the forget-me-not breath of an ancient pathos upon our hardened cheeks. There seems to have once been something touching about us. 

1. The passengers were Tarkington, his wife, and his parents. They arrived in Europe in 1903. This trip was in summer 1904.

Reprinted by permission.

An extract from the new edition of Tarkington’s collected memoirs edited by Jeremy Beer. This selection includes some of Tarkington’s reflections on the dawn of the automobile age. “If you live, you will yourselves become strange inhabitants of the new world.”